Sunday, April 12, 2015

The Stories of Francis Stevens-The Citadel of Fear-Part Two

This episode begins with two treasure hunters, Colin O'Hara and Archer Kennedy, being held prisoner by the people of Tlapallan, "the last remnant of a forgotten race, older than Toltec or Mayan, or even the Olmecs." (p. 43) As it turns out, Svend Bjornson, O'Hara and Kennedy's former host and captor, is a kind of guardian of the lost city and its people. Still, he is a modern man and a member of western civilization, and he has something in common with them. Meeting the captives in their cell, Bjornson offers a warning and the first inkling of the theme of The Citadel of Fear:
"Boy," [he says to O'Hara], "never bow your head to the gods of a strange race! Never! Not for beauty, nor love, nor wealth, nor friendship! Not for wonders, nor miracles! You speak of mysteries. There is a mystery I could tell you of--but your soul would be sick afterward--sick--you might even desert your Christ--as I did, God help me!" (p. 44)
Bjornson recounts his story, how he came to Tlapallan and how he remained, even when he knew what it meant to remain:
"When I say that you are housed now in the seat of Nacoc-Yaotl it means nothing to you," [he says], "but to me it means threat of a terror that I never think of when I can avoid it! When I was first here, a prisoner, I, who had never given much thought to religion, used to spend whole nights in prayer, entreating God to make it untrue--or let me forget!"
Bjornson could have escaped from Tlapallan, seat of Nacoc-Yaotl, a god of the Tlapallans, but he did not go, for the attraction was too great. The implication is that he has given up his soul in exchange for what he once believed to be a greater reward.

There is a lot of escaping in The Citadel of Fear. Once again, O'Hara and Kennedy escape from their cell into the city of Tlapallan. They are astonished to find a great white lake, illuminated from below, its waters plied by the galleys of the Tlapallans. Here they separate, O'Hara drawn to light and water--symbols perhaps of life itself--Kennedy retreating into the dark, empty, and convoluted inner recesses of the city. There he stumbles onto a nightmarish and fantastic landscape, and in it, a niche in a wall, filled with an almost palpable darkness and inhabited by a black idol. Kennedy cannot tear himself away from the face of the idol:
It was not a good face. No evil, indeed, could have been too vile for its ugliness to grin at . . . . A tense, cruel grin it was, that had never heard of humor. Cruel and monstrously alert . . . . The eyes were slits, but they were watchful slits . . . . Had it witnessed torture, not the victim but the tormentor would have held its avid attention. Not pain, but cruelty, not vice but viciousness--and the corruption of all mankind could hardly have sated its ambition, nor the evil of a world-wide race of demons have quenched the desire behind its narrowed lids. (p. 66)
This, then, is Nacoc-Yaotl, "black maker of hatreds, who would destroy mankind if he could." (pp. 71-72) The image evokes in the mind of the reader who has read stories by H.P. Lovecraft the image of Cthulhu and his associates. Maybe that image made its way into the mind of Lovecraft himself in 1918, there to remain for nearly a decade before he wrote "The Call of Cthulhu" in 1926. (1)

The narrative continues:
In the natures of different men there are, as one might say, certain empty spaces. Voids that long to be filled. So one craves beauty, and another love, a third goodness, and a fourth, perhaps, mere lust of the senses.
          Meeting these, the emptiness is filled and the man is happy. So, Kennedy. He had craved gold, but back of that desire was another and deeper lack--an emptiness unknown and unacknowledged, even by himself. The face of [Nacoc-Yaotl] filled it. (pp. 66-67)
Here, then, is a figure we might recognize, the materialist, desperately empty, desperate to believe in something, only too happy to fill his emptiness with the first compelling belief system he encounters, and desperate, too, to surrender himself and his freedom to the first entity who offers to relieve him of such burdens. Heedless of Bjornson's earlier warning, Kennedy gives to Nacoc-Yaotl "the perfect worship of a real devotee." (p. 76)

Kennedy and O'Hara spend another twenty-five pages in Tlapallan until Bjornson allows O'Hara to escape. Kennedy is still held captive in the city of Quetzacoatl--and Nacoc-Yaotl--and that's the last we see of him for awhile. Then, abruptly, on page 93, the story jumps forward fifteen years into the then-present, circa 1918, and the home of Colin O'Hara's almost anagramatically-named sister, Cliona O'Hara Rhodes, located in an eastern suburb named Charpentier. That break comes about one-third of the way through Francis Stevens' story, and it isn't only a break in time and place, but also in mood, plot, and genre. From a Lost Worlds adventure-fantasy, The Citadel of Fear moves into the territory of a mystery-thriller, increasingly into horror, as Cliona and her household are terrorized by the nighttime visitations of strange, frightening, and largely unseen creatures. There is a good deal of humor, including the introduction of an Inspector Lestrade kind of character in the police detective MacClellan. There is also some domestic melodrama and/or comedy perhaps meant to appeal to women readers after so many pages of the Mexican adventures of two scruffy treasure hunters. The Citadel of Fear is overlong in places, with too much space devoted to what appear to be inconsequential events and descriptions. Most of that is in the middle part of the book.

So if a story breaks at the one-third mark, you might look for another transition at the two-thirds mark. On first reading the book, I didn't detect the break, but there it is, on page 190, where Colin O'Hara sets off on his last visit to the estate of a Mr. Chester Reed, like Tlapallan a fantastic place, and located in the nearby village of Undine. Reed is an odd character and a kind of Dr. Moreau of the suburbs. He and O'Hara had met many chapters before. Again, as in her previous stories, Francis Stevens displayed a great faculty for imagining and describing strange, fantastic, and nightmarish places. Again there is a suggestion that a place has a personality, or expresses the personality of the person who inhabits or creates it. In the estate of Chester Reed, The Citadel of Fear reaches its climax, and its author, in an extraordinary dream-vision, foretells something of our time, and perhaps also of the world into which dark fantasy would be born.

To be concluded . . .

(1) The body of the idol is described as a thing that "squatted naked, and the fingers clasped about its drawn-up knees were long, and stealthy, and treacherous." (p. 66). There is a strong suggestion here of the image of the idol of Cthulhu in Lovecraft's story.

"The Citadel of Fear" was reprinted complete in Famous Fantastic Mysteries in February 1942. The cover was by Virgil Finlay.

Text and captions copyright 2015 Terence E. Hanley

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